Sunday, July 1, 2007

Renegade Astronomer

In April 2007, I had the pleasure of meeting innovative astronomer Geoffrey Burbidge, one of the "B^2 HF" group that revolutionized thinking about the chemical elements some 50 years ago. Back then, some scientists were convinced that *all* of the elements were forged in a hot Big Bang. Others, such as the Burbidges (Margaret and Geoff) as well as Fred Hoyle didn't believe in the Big Bang. They favored a "steady state" universe that exists eternally. (In fact the term "Big Bang" was originally a put-down of the theory by Hoyle!)

The Burbidges, Hoyle and William Fowler set out to find an alternative mechanism for element production. Brilliantly, they deduced a process by which the higher elements are forged in the fiery cauldrons of stellar cores, then released in catastrophic supernova explosions. Thus, the oxygen we breathe and the carbon we burn were once in the belly of a long-gone giant star.

Geoff Burbidge still believes in a modified version of the steady state model, making him part of a dwindling minority amongst astronomers. He cautions an open mind toward cosmology, and notes that the Big Bang theory still has many gaps--such as the 96% of the matter and energy invisible to astronomical detection. Although few scientists agree with his solution to the great cosmological dilemmas, it is admirable that Burbidge is unafraid to voice his views, and serves as an exemplar of diversity of thought.

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